How to Get a Refund When Something Is Non-Refundable
That little phrase — non-refundable (or non-returnable) — is as unsettling to frugal shoppers as garlic is to vampires. Surely in this day and age, where the customer is always right and stores are willing to do anything to get your business, the very idea of non-refundable must be out of date, right?
Well, yes it is. Kind of. There are usually ways around every problem, if you're willing to put in a little bit of extra effort and turn on the charm. Or, if charm doesn't work, the threat of further action, including legal ramifications, can work. But usually, a simple explanation of extenuating circumstances can get you what you need. (See also: How to Complain and Get a Good Result)
So, what follows is a list of items that are often non-refundable or non-returnable, and a few ideas on how to get around the “standard” policy.
1. Airline Tickets
These are perhaps the biggest and best-known non-refundable purchases. We're always afraid to commit to buy because we know, even if we purchase the pointless travel insurance, that we're never going to get our money back.
But for those with particular circumstances or some real persistence, it is possible. These are tough times for the airlines though, so these days it's even harder than ever to get any kind of refund or exchange.
First, if you need to cancel your flight due to “acts of God” in the country or state you're flying to, you will most likely get a refund. These reasons are not exactly small potatoes though, and they include severe weather, political turmoil, war, pandemics, or civil unrest. It's no guarantee, of course.
Medical problems are also taken into account when it comes to ticket cancelations. If you are struck down by a sudden illness or cannot fly due to problems that could occur (eye surgery + pressure = danger), then you could qualify for a full refund. You will need supporting medical documentation; you can't just call up with a sick note from your mom.
If there's a death or illness in the family, many airlines will give you a refund for your ticket. Hopefully that's one reason you'll never have to use.
And if you have just lost your job, you may be able to get a refund on that ticket. You'll really have to turn on the charm, though; most airlines have been thrown into financially choppy waters due to the economy, and a similar story on your end may not go very far.
2. Hotel Rooms
Closely related to airline tickets are hotel rooms. Many of the same reasons for canceling a flight also apply to the cancelation of a hotel room.
Once again, you should be able to cancel your reservation and get a full refund if the hotel is bang in the middle of a country that's being hit by war, severe weather, a pandemic, and so on.
Canceling due to illness or a death in the family is also a solid reason. However, you may not have as much luck with your own medical issues. Can't fly? Drive to the hotel. Feeling ill? Stay in your room for the trip. The hotel won't really care.
If it's peak season or there's a conference in town, you'll have a better chance of getting a refund. In those circumstances the hotel will have no problem filling the room. But any other time, you're probably going to eat the bill unless you have a world-class excuse.
Remember, though, if you can't get a refund, a credit for that hotel may be just as good. See if you can wrangle a stay later in the year for free. It also doesn't hurt to ask travel agents if they can help; they often have great relationships with the hotels. And always call the hotel directly; never go through the site you used to book the room. Hotels are filled with people who are in the business of making people happy with their stay. The other sites just want to sell rooms at a discount.
3. Custom-Mixed Paint
When you ask for a specific paint to be mixed, you're committing to the sale. The hardware store will print in big, bold letters NON-RETURNABLE on the top. You're stuck with it. Or are you? You may be stuck with the can of paint, but most stores will be more than happy to tint it again if it's possible. I just found this out when a tint I asked to be made turned out to be slightly too dark. The people at Home Depot showed me a selection of colors that could be made from the tint I already had and turned it that shade for me. Nice!
Now if you're wondering how those “oops” paints get returned, they don't. Those are mistakes made during the tinting process that produce the wrong color, or maybe you ordered a quart and the member of staff mixed a gallon by mistake. That goes on sale because you didn't ask for that size and shouldn't have to pay for it.
4. Concert Tickets
You bought two tickets to see U2 or Coldplay at a huge stadium, but then a week before the gig your boss tells you about a last-minute conference out of state. You're now stuck with two tickets that you won't be using, and almost all concert tickets are non-refundable.
The best way to get a refund is to sell them. It's that simple. Craigslist is the best resource in my opinion. List the tickets at face value, and you'll probably get your money back. If you want to make sure you get something for them, undervalue them a little. If the concert is sold out, don't think it means everyone is scrambling for a ticket. Scalpers and online brokers often buy up hundreds of tickets and resell them at a massive profit, but it doesn't always work out well for them (Charlie Sheen...oh dear).
But don't go down to the box office to get a refund. You'll be laughed at 99% of the time.
5. Sale/Clearance Items
This one's a toughie. The bright red or yellow sticker on the box saying “clearance, no refunds” should make it fairly obvious that you won't get a refund on the item. But a little ingenuity can help. Many of the big stores like Walmart and Target will take back those clearance items in spite of the warning. As long as it's in the original packaging, you'll probably get your money back, or at the very least some store credit.
6. Bespoke Clothing
Now we go from tough to really, really tough. Bespoke, or tailored, clothing is very difficult to return. And the reason is obvious. The only person it fits perfectly is you.
For a start, think about why you'd want to return it. Is it buyer's remorse? That won't fly with the tailor who sold you the suit of pair of slacks. Tough.
You can always try and claim poverty, but that won't work either. To be honest, your best bet here is to list it on eBay. With its worldwide reach, you'll find plenty of people with your measurements, and you may even get more than you paid for it. And if that fails, donate it and write it off on your taxes.
7. Opened Video Games, DVDs, and CDs
This is another rotten one to negotiate. In the past, no problem at all. But these days, with copying as easy, and as widespread, as ever, stores have to be ultra-vigilant. Personally, I don't blame them. If they gave everyone a refund who came back a week later with an opened game, they'd go out of business.
Now, there is definitely no problem in getting an exchange for the exact same title. If you have a scratched disc and want a replacement, you'll get one. If someone got you a PS3 game and you own an XBOX 360, they should swap it out for a different platform.
But what if you get a CD or game, pop it in, and instantly hate it? What then?
Well, you could simply sell the item. You won't get top dollar for it, but it's better than having something around that you'll never watch, listen to, or play. Another option is to "regift" it. Of course, it should be in perfect condition if you do that; no one wants some scratched-up DVD or CD or a game covered in fingerprints and Cheetos crumbs.
So, that's my list of the top seven items that are non-refundable and have workarounds. Did I miss one? Do you have any additional advice? Leave your sage wisdom in the comments below.